The cartoon above sort of upset me when I first saw it.  It made me think of all the sad stories I’ve heard over the past four years involving off leash dogs and how preventable all of those situations were if the dogs had just been on leash.  And on the flip side of that, it made me feel guilty.  Perhaps I was boring my dog by not allowing her to have more freedom to roam city streets off leash and I started to feel a little bit bad for city dogs in general.  I wondered if my dog would actually prefer being on her own as opposed to being stuck with me.  Until I snapped out of it and realised that I know a bit more about dogs and our relationships with them than some cheeky cartoonist!  As soon as I snapped out of my little funk, I took a screenshot of this image on my iPhone and started brainstorming for this blog post.

The mentality seems to be that dogs need to be able to roam free and just be dogs.  But they arejust being dogs, whether or not they’re leashed.  Dogs have evolved for hundreds of years to perform certain jobs, but also to be our steadfast companions.  Being with us humans is as much a part of a dog’s DNA nowadays as hunting or herding is.  If your dog has opportunities for off leash play in enclosed environments or designated off leash areas, then there’s no reason to look at the leash as “forced togetherness.”  A leash, to me, signifies a dog owner who is realistic enough to know that a) they cannot control everything, and b) their dog will never be 100% trustworthy.  99% maybe, but that 1% is the difference between life and death for most dogs, especially in the city.

As a trainer, the number one question I get (aside from “how do I get my puppy to stop nipping?!”) is “how do I train my dog to walk off leash beside me on neighbourhood sidewalks?”  My answer, quite simply (and perhaps disappointingly, for some), is that you don’t!  For some reason, we have it in our heads that the epitomic perfectly trained dog is one that is completely trustworthy off leash in any situation.  This describes exactly zero of all the hundreds of dogs I’ve encountered in my four years of working with dogs.  What people forget is that the presence of the leash itself isn’t an indication of an untrained dog anymore than the absence of a leash is an indication of a perfectly trained dog.  Believe me, I’ve seen many obviously untrained dogs exploring city sidewalks off leash too!  The leash’s primary function is to just keep your dog from running into the road no matter what environmental variables you come across – squirrels, loud dump trucks, thunder and lightning, screaming kids, other dogs, etc.  If your dog bolts for any reason, the leash will save his life (so hold on tight!).  Every time your dog is off leash in an uncontrolled environment, you are taking a major gamble with your dog’s life, and the safety of other people or dogs around you.

Stuff happens, folks!  As trainers, it’s irresponsible for us to teach people how to get their dogs to walk nicely off leash in an urban environment.  The first reason for this being major liability, and the second reason being that it’s impossible for us to help you control all variables.  Sure, an unleashed dog roaming the sidewalks with his dad sure looks slick, but it ain’t worth it.  I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve heard about dogs who never wore a leash their entire lives, until “one day, he just had to have that squirrel.”  The environment isn’t always our best friend when it comes to raising Rover, so we have to manage their environments to ensure our dogs’ safety at all times.  This is where the leash comes in: a simple 6ft piece of nylon (or leather, if that’s your fancy). A leash is the number one most important piece of doggy equipment you’ll ever need (with a collar or harness, of course).  Think of a leash and collar like a car seat for newborns – no hospital would ever let you take your baby home without one.  Think of us trainers as those caring nurses who uphold the law to keep you and your baby (ahem…furbaby) safe.  Keep your dogs leashed in on-leash areas (which is everywhere, unless marked otherwise), and especially on busy streets.

Speaking of laws, Toronto has some pretty strict leash laws, and bylaw officers are out there pounding the pavement every day looking for unsuspecting dog owners to ticket.  It’s not just dog walkers who are targeted by the bylaw officers.  As annoying as bylaw officers can be, they’re just doing their job.  And their job has a really important function when it comes to helping keep Toronto’s dogs safe.  Plus, $350 tickets suck.

Nobody likes to think of all the things that could happen if their dog is off leash in an uncontrolled environment.  For those who have experienced firsthand what can happen with off leash dogs, they likely never expected to find themselves in those situations.  Luckily, these situations are completely preventable with a leash, so be a good ambassador and enjoy your leashed walkies!!

Here are several situations where a leash is your best friend (of the non-furry variety):

1. It’s the law!

2. It keeps your dog away from dogs who may be reactive or aggressive or need space.

3. Not everyone likes dogs, and fearful people or joggers, etc. deserve their space.

4. Poisonous food items left in dog parks, etc.

5. Road safety

6. Dogs face several breed/park bans that could be prevented by responsible pet ownership.

7. Dogs do have minds of their own!

8. Dog bite prevention in case your dog is threatened by another person or dog.

9. You can’t lose your dog if they’re leashed.